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Get Better At Difficult Conversations By Aligning Your Behavior With What You Want The problem is that, in a HardTalk scenario, we often behave in a way almost guaranteed to achieve any purpose, other than the one we want.

By Dawn Metcalfe

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Imagine this: you get up in the morning, and you have a perfectly lovely breakfast with your favorite people/book/device, and on your way into work, you remember you have a team meeting. The first item on the agenda is how one of the projects you work on is behind a few weeks. You've worked well with everyone on the team before- what kind of purpose do you have? I've asked this question to thousands of people at this stage, and the vast majority will come up with something positive and healthy. They might say to "understand," or "advise," or "interpret," or even "to console."

I then pose this scenario: let's imagine a guy has just found out, on the first day of the working week, from his assistant just 10 minutes before a progress update meeting is due to start, that his team has fallen behind on a project that's close to his heart. He's new at the company and is keen to make his mark. What kind of purpose might he have? Pretty much universally, the answers to this question are less positive, and include purposes such as "punish," or "blame," or "guilt," or "save face," or "to avoid recrimination."

Returning to the first scenario, what if it hadn't been such a great start to your day? Instead of a lovely breakfast with your favorite whatever, you woke up late, because you missed the alarm? What if one or more of the others on the team were irritating, or had thrown you under a bus last week? What if one of them insulted you before the meeting began? In front of your boss? What might your purpose have been in the team meeting? Would that really match the results you want? If you're honest (and normal!), you'll probably admit that your purpose in that scenario might not be one that you'd be quite as happy sharing with others. The chances are that in the meeting, in the moment, your purpose will have changed. It's no longer the long-term, healthy purpose that gets us the long-term results we want, for ourselves, for others, for relationships. Instead it becomes a short-term purpose that, if we achieve it, will make us feel good for a few minutes- but does nothing to get us what we really care about.

The problem is that, in a HardTalk scenario, we often behave in a way almost guaranteed to achieve any purpose, other than the one we want. And worse, we feel great about it (for a while at least), because of the "fundamental attribution bias." We tell ourselves other people's bad behavior is based on their personality and motives, whereas our behavior is a result of external circumstances. Other people are late because they're disorganized or disrespectful. I'm late because of the traffic. It's called the fundamental attribution bias, and it lets us get away with bad behavior, because it gives us an excuse. The excuse is "well, the other person is "bad,' and so I don't have to behave well -I can go speechless or squash them- it's the reasonable thing to do."

My response to this is simple: stop thinking about what the other person "deserves," and think about what you deserve. What results do you want? That's what should dictate your behavior. So, how can you tell someone's purpose? The simple answer is you can't. We can't see inside people's heads, so we extrapolate their purpose from what we see them do and hear them say. In essence, it's down to behavior -what they say, and what they do- and, of course, how we interpret this behavior due to our own filters.

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The problem is other people do that to us too, and because of the fundamental attribution bias, they assume our behavior is a result of our personality and motive or purpose, and not just because of, for example, a bad night's sleep, a cold cup of coffee, or irritating news about a family member. We might have a good purpose in mind if asked in advance, but in the moment? Under stress? What would people think our purpose is in HardTalk, if all they have to go by is our behavior? Your behavior is all other people do have to go on. They can't see inside your mind, so they will assume your behavior is a choice that reflects your personality and your purpose. Whether they're right or wrong doesn't matter. What they perceive is important.

We can have one of two kinds of purposes –short and long-term– depending on whether Homer (The Simpsons) or Dr. Spock (Star Trek) is in charge. You want people, usually, to know your good, long-term purpose (although there may be some scenarios in which you want there to be ambiguity). In other words, you want your behavior to reflect Dr. Spock's considered approach, and not Homer's "If it feels good right now, let's do it." One way of doing that is by focusing on, as the Spice Girls famously sang, "what you really, really want." If you can focus on that, it's likely your behavior will reflect it. Yes, it's all about self-awareness, and it is as simple and as difficult as that.

You have to be observing your behavior, and the impact it has on others. For example, perhaps you want to be perceived as accessible- that's your purpose, and the potential you want them to have. But then you realize the team you are working with interpret your behavior as "too friendly for a boss." You can then change the choice you're making about how you turn up, so you are perceived as you want to be perceived. A senior partner in a law firm turns to a new associate as they leave the first client meeting they've had together, sighs, and says "So I guess it's obvious Brian is your mentor." The new associate immediately reacted- his face tensed, and he withdrew from further conversation. Earlier, he had been engaged and had made some interesting points. The senior partner had recently taken a HardTalk program and was listening hard- this meant she was able to notice and consider the change in behavior, and recognize it as abnormal. She eventually learned that the associate was upset because he had heard rumors that his mentor wasn't universally valued amongst the senior staff.

He interpreted the partner's purpose as being to let him know that he'd underperformed, and was being considered in the same light as the mentor. In fact, the partner had known the new associate's mentor for many years, and knew they are particularly bad at building associates' self-confidence. She had noticed the associate seemed nervous, and his voice was trembling, and was considering the options available to help him. Her purpose was not to censure, but rather to develop the more junior people, and build the strength of her team. When she realized the confusion, she was able to make sure she was properly understood. When the senior partner understood what the associate was upset about, she was able to reassure him as to her real purpose. And he believed her.

When I tell this story in front of groups, this is where I lose them. There is often a sense of "Yeah, sure, right, but back in the real world!" when they hear that the associate and the partner calmly worked out that there had been a misunderstanding, and moved on with a better relationship than before. Have a look at these HardTalk scenarios. How do you think they went

1. A client sends a supplier an SMS saying "We need to talk. Call me now."

2. A group of people are meeting to discuss talent succession. One member says: "I don't understand why Mariya is still on this list of high potentials." Another member, Mariya's mentor, interrupts to say, "She has as much right as anyone else to be there- her numbers were extraordinary last year."

Neither of these conversations went well. In each case there was confusion around purpose with people assuming a less than positive purpose (remember: we're doom-mongers, and so usually assume the worst), and becoming upset, nervous or annoyed. So, what actually happened in the aforementioned scenarios? In the case of the former, the supplier was nervous, because she assumed the client was unhappy. She interpreted the client's purpose as being to complain, and so was defensive. In fact, the client did have a problem, and was getting a lot of hassle from his boss, so he was calling to find out what was going on. His purpose was to investigate and understand, not to complain and blame. With respect to the latter case, the mentor assumed the other team member was questioning Mariya's right to be there, and pushed back strongly. But, in fact, the member was suggesting that Mariya already qualified to be on a different list with extra funding and more opportunities for access to senior people and stretch assignments.

Image credit: HardTalk.
The people starting these HardTalks would say their motive was, for example, to develop their team/ to understand a problem/ to make sure the rules are followed, and yet they were misunderstood, and so their HardTalk became just that little bit harder. Make it less likely you fall into the same trap by following these rules:

1. Share your purpose explicitly Sometimes it seems we're so sure we'll be disbelieved that we don't even tell the other person what our purpose is. Tell the other person what your intention is. Don't leave any room for doubt. They might not believe you, but they also just might. Especially if you're telling the truth. It's worth a go, surely? Sharing our purpose at the beginning of the HardTalk can also help us to remember the ultimate purpose: i.e. to hear and be heard.

2. If you can't find a positive purpose, then why are you are having a HardTalk at all? Your ultimate purpose is to hear and be heard. It's to share what you've noticed, and put forward a potential, and maybe some consequences. It's to listen, so you can understand why something is the way it is, and work with the other person to make it better. These are all reasonable things to want. So why not tell people? Why not say: "I want to understand/decide/ confirm/explain...?" Are you afraid you might be held accountable? That you might actually have to behave as though that's what you want?

3. Be consistent Inconsistency drives people crazy! Inconsistency between how you behave in one situation versus another will always raise alarm bells. If you want to be believed when it counts, you need to be consistent all the time in your behavior, or have a clear explanation of why you are being inconsistent. That may seem unreasonable when you look around and see others behaving inconsistently, but it's not about them right now. It's about you, and the results you want.

Maybe we're so aware of our own inner inconsistencies that we struggle to understand that others are just judging us on our behavior. We fail to understand how important it is that our behavior is consistent with what we say our purpose is. Your purpose is what you really want in the long-term. Your perceived purpose is what your behavior suggests you want. Discover how to align the two in order to achieve successful HardTalk.

Mastering [the art of] difficult conversations

What is The HardTalk Handbook?

Image credit: HardTalk Handbook.

The HardTalk Handbook is an interactive guide to mastering the science and art of difficult conversations we keep avoiding. Using extensive research and neuroscience techniques, it explores the reasons behind communication behaviour and how to combat those that hold us back. It demonstrates how to resolve conflict and effect change, even in the most diverse organisations, no matter your culture, background or experience. Discover why we'd rather "put up" instead of "turn up," and how our natural instinct to "speak louder" is far less important than "listening hard." Whether you need to tell a colleague they smell, that your boss's approach is ineffective or any other type of HardTalk you have experienced, this Handbook will show you the skills you need to succeed at the conversations that make all the difference.

This is an edited excerpt from The HardTalk Handbook: The Definitive Guide To Having The Difficult Conversations That Make A Difference, by Dawn Metcalfe. HardTalk is available to purchase on

Related: Straight Talk: How To Have Good Difficult Conversations

Dawn Metcalfe

Coach, Trainer, Author, Speaker

Dawn Metcalfe is workplace culture advisor, author and speaker. She is the founder of PDSi, which helps individuals and teams drive organizational and behavioral change. Dawn’s first book was Managing the MatrixThe HardTalk Handbook is her second. Dawn speaks regularly at events and in the media on any topic where people and business intersect. You can read more about HardTalk at and about PDSi at Talk to Dawn on Twitter @DawnPDSi


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